Excellence: More Than Talent


A natural giftedness for something is not what makes you great.

"Excellence" may bring to mind unmatched performance, unusual expertise, or consistent high-quality performance. In our minds, we often associate excellence with talent. To be the best, surely you  have to be gifted, right? Experience has taught me that talent, while important, in no way explains excellence. In fact, the primary pathway to excellence has three main steps, none of which depends on talent.

1) Find Your Passion

"You are nothing unless it comes from your heart. Passion, caring, really looks to create excellence. If you perform functions only and go to work only to do processes, then you are effectively retired. And it scares me--most people I see, by age 28, are retired. If you go to work only to fulfill the processes and functions, then you are a machine. You have to bring passion, commitment and caring-that's what makes you a human being."  - Horst Schulze, Former President of Ritz-Carlton

People of excellence love what they do. They have learned how to fuel the fire that keeps them moving. How do you spot a passionate person?

1) They work with their whole heart.

2) They work with undistracted attention.

3) They work with maximum energy.

In life, the prize goes to the person, not who's the smartest or most talented, but the person with passion.

Application: Reshuffle Tasks in the Direction of Your Passion

1) Take an inventory of the work activities that you enjoy, and in which you excel.

What energizes you and makes you feel alive about them?

2) Take inventory of the work activities that drain away your energy. Ask yourself why these tasks feel so burdensome.

3) Have a conversation with your manager about shifting your workload in the direction of your passion. Don't expect your boss to allow you to reshuffle your responsibilities overnight. Be willing to take very small, gradual steps toward your passion. Even exchanging one de-energizing task for another that brings you energy is a victory.

2) Never Cease Practicing

"If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all."- Michelangelo

Passion won’t take you anywhere unless you combine it with disciplined practice. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, studies success and discovers that innate talent has a lot less to do with excellence than does practice. In fact, he found that the successful people he studied (the Beatles, Bill Gates) put in 10,000 hours of practice before making a big splash. Nobody cruises to the top on natural giftedness alone. As Gladwell writes, "Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It's the thing you do that makes you good."

Application: Don't Just Learn ...Do

In hospital emergency rooms nurses have a saying, "Watch one, do one, teach one." This refers to the fast pace of the profession and the need to learn quickly, then jump right in to practice what you learned on a real live patient, and then pass it on just as quickly to someone else. Notice that learning is only the first one-third of the job.  The real key is putting that learning into practice. The principle applies to any profession or business. You can't just read about how to change a tire, write a contract, start a business, or perform open-heart surgery. You need to perform the skill to perfect the skill.

3) Honor Your Values

"I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me."- Abraham Lincoln

We all could give examples of talented, charismatic people who sabotaged their careers by abandoning their values. Passion and practice bring excellence, but character sustains excellence over time. Absence of strong character eventually topples talent. People cannot climb beyond the limitations of their character. Eventually the limelight of success brings to light the cracks in their integrity.

Application: Clarify Core Values

1) Consider the question: What does excellent character look like?

2) Brainstorm a list of qualities you feel are important to character (honesty, integrity, etc.). Keep thinking and writing until you have at least 10. Then choose three of them as "core values."

3) Set aside time on your calendar (30 minutes or so), twice a month for the next four months, to pause and evaluate how you’re doing in honoring your core values.

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